“I don’t want to look like a fool,” replied my friend, the CEO, when asked why he didn’t blog or Twitter—he saw plenty of fools in the blogosphere. Another friend, a professor of law, stared at me wide-eyed and with no hint of self-mockery said, “you mean you write it yourself? You don’t have a lawyer review it?” Ever the risk manager, he had read reports of Courtney Love being sued for defamation and of Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, who was fined by the National Basketball Association for criticizing another owner via Twitter.
A week ago, I gave an interview in which the journalist seemed keen to discuss my blog. Her main question was, “Why don’t more deans do this?” Certainly precious few do. My peer at UVA, Meredith Woo, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has started to blog and Twitter. I told the journalist that blogging is time-consuming and that most deans are swamped with stuff. Sure, she said, but a number of CEOs manage to blog. I averred that most CEO blogs are to blogging what military music is to music: lots of oompah, less subtlety, and absolutely no improvisation. ((Help me raise the standards here. I’d like to identify the best CEO blogs—for that purpose I ask my readers to hit the comment section with their nominees for the best.)) A leader must want to blog in order to do it consistently and well. Given the obvious risks and demands of time, why blog? Why Twitter?
“Blog” is short for “web log,” a stream of postings by a writer to the general public. Today, millions of blogs fill the blogosphere. “Twitter is a microblogging service that allows members to report on what they’re seeing, thinking, and feeling by posting comments that are limited to just 140 characters each. You can subscribe to someone’s Twitter feed and receive what are called “tweets”—brief bits of information,” wrote Melissa Hart ((Melissa Hart, “The Trouble with Twitter”, The Chronicle Review July 27, 2009.)) Twitter has over 8 million users and is growing rapidly. It belongs to that elite club of companies whose names are ubiquitous and have become a verb, like Google and Xerox. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely, says a poll conducted by Harvard Business Review. The top 10% of Twitter users account for 90% of tweets. It seems that Twitter is about a few people talking to lots of people rather than a lot of people talking to each other.
So, why should a leader participate in this? The answer: to engage a social network– these media help to build connectivity with one’s community. I find that it works. I’ve been blogging ((My early blog postings can be found among my papers and case studies at ssrn.com—the postings mostly consider the trials and tribulations of teaching.)) for about 3 years and Twittering ((Twitter at http://Twitter.com/Bob_Bruner.)) for about a year. All of this has generated a steady stream of conversation and comment from the wider Darden community and groups outside. In contrast, email just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. Emails from leaders to a community are treated by the recipients as just so much spam. But blogs and tweets get a different reception—as long as they deal with subjects on which the leader is knowledgeable and cares enough to write. A leader should consider blogging and Twittering for reasons including:
- Frame an agenda. As the Proverb says, “without a vision, the people will wander.” An important role of leaders is to frame the mission and vision of the enterprise—or, at the very least, to ask the kind of questions that will kick-start the work of the community in framing a vision. In addition, the leader needs to help the enterprise look ahead, typically by identifying opportunities and challenges to be addressed. Blog postings of 1,000-1,500 words are ideal for this.
- Reaffirm values. For instance, diversity and ethics are two values espoused by many corporations. But unless these values are articulated by the leader, messages about them begin to look like spam. Last winter, an applicant asked me whether Darden has an ethics problem, since I write about it so frequently; I answered that Darden doesn’t have an ethics problem, precisely because I write about it so frequently. See, for instance, my message on Darden as a community of ethics, which I send at the start of the calendar year, or my message on diversity, which I send on Martin Luther King day.
- Participate in a conversation; learn from others. You can choose to be part of a conversation or be silent. But willful silence imposes a huge opportunity cost. Obviously, you must pick your fields of conversation prudently. I opine on the issues that I know something about and that cross my desk with regularity: problems of leadership in business, the ongoing economic crisis, coaching for students and executives, etc. The learning is tangible: among a circle of people you care to follow, you can gain a sense of changing priorities and interests. Jeffrey Pulver, an investor in Twitter, believes that “Twitter has forever changed the way people interact with the Web, making it possible for everyone to live online in what he calls the “state of now.” An application, Tweetdeck, gives you a real-time feed of the top subjects that are the current focus of discussion (called “Twitscoop.”) Twitter is a medium for conversation among like-minded people. Noam Cohen wrote, “Social networking, a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon, has already been credited with aiding protests from the Republic of Georgia to Egypt to Iceland. And Twitter, the newest social-networking tool, has been identified with two mass protests in a matter of months — in Moldova in April and in Iran last week, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the official results of the presidential election.” ((The New York Times, Sunday, June 21, 2009, “Twitter on the Barricades in Iran: Six Lessons Learned,” By Noam Cohen.))
My experience with the rising generation of MBA students and graduates is that they are adept at using these digital media to express ideas, and increasingly, they expect it of their leaders. I don’t think leaders have much choice—you cannot lead from behind. The conversations with my friends, the CEO, the law professor, and the journalist reinforce in my mind that the chief rule for blogging and Twittering is to write what you care about and what you know about. The time demand can be considerable, though I believe that the benefits probably outweigh the costs.